A while ago I led a workshop on ‘peer observation’ at the Optimus Education Conference for FE. I was sharing the findings to date from two colleges that I am supporting with their efforts to encourage peer visits/pair sharing; opportunities for teachers to visit a peer’s classroom and reflect on the teaching and learning happening there.
At the workshop I met a group of thoughtful and enthusiastic people who see the value of this process and were keen to foster it in their colleges. What struck me was how few colleges have a dynamic, vigorous culture of consistent peer visiting and that this message is replicated whenever I start work in a new college as a consultant, trainer or coach. It seems to me that many of us would really like to see a colleague’s class and have some reflective space for a dialogue with that peer about the experience. Yet in most contexts, peer visits are patchy at best. So, why is that? What are the challenges and barriers to peer visits?
1. Cross contamination from graded observation
Many teachers are on a scale between disengaged and scarred as regards graded observation. If teachers are used to this model, with all its potentially negative effects and lack of ownership, they can find it difficult to conceptualize visiting a classroom for reflection purposes, not to judge, and don’t really focus on how liberating, fascinating and stimulating that could be. Some teachers tell me they feel a little threatened and anxious at the thought of someone watching their class, so are not likely to engage in the process if it is optional.
In some cultures, graded observation has been such a fraught and contentious process that it is a real challenge to create any receptive space for peer visits.
2. The obsession with tracking/evidence
Many leaders and CPD teams struggle to formulate a peer visit/pair sharing model that doesn’t have a paperwork trail to it because of the current frenzy for evidencing within our sector. In many contexts, teachers have told me the related paperwork is a total turn off. It feels bureaucratic; it feels like policing; it doesn’t make the process feel personal, safe, empowering and developmental for the individual.
3. The perennial problem: no time to do it
In almost every conversation I have on this topic, I hear people say, “I would really like to see someone else’s lesson but there just isn’t time in my timetable. There is always something higher priority to do, as well.”
Teachers can be teaching heavy timetables – 27 hours per week contact time in the odd place – with increasing loads of preparation, assessment, marking and college administration. Every half hour counts, in this environment.
Part timers can be working in a range of colleges with the additional pressures of dashing from one place to another, which can also affect teachers working across sites in the array of merged colleges dotting the FE landscape. The FE context is not exactly peer sharing friendly, I agree.
Enabling peer visits to happen
The challenges above are real and can scupper the best-intentioned peer sharing process, so I think it needs careful thought and reflection in context, to enable people to explore and develop peer visits. From what I have observed in the sector I think these points are worth considering:
1. Don’t call this process peer observation – find another name that sums up the sharing, developmental, teacher-owned way this process differs from graded observations. Separate it entirely from that process; help it to feel, look and be different. If this happens, it will take on a life of its own within the teaching community.
2. Involve teachers in devising the models they want to engage with – create a discussion about the benefits, the challenges and the ways that teachers will find it most useful, helpful, comfortable and safe. I think you will get more genuine engagement when this is a bottom up process and not something imposed, top down. Talk about who teachers want to see, who they feel comfortable with, as the starting point – in many colleges, the relationships within teams make this context a good place to start.
3. Think hard about whether you need paperwork. Who is it for? What is its purpose? In many contexts, an optional personal reflection sheet can be welcomed and the chance to discuss with colleagues what has been gained, perhaps in a team setting later on, is an interesting follow up. Keeping the details confidential seems to play a big part in success, as highlighted by Matt O’Leary’s research:
‘..an expansive learning environment is one in which opportunities for collaborative discussion and wider reflection on professional learning are encouraged and promoted. In relation to classroom observation, my research findings revealed a common core of principles underpinning expansive models across colleges, typically centring on notions of collaboration, trust and professional autonomy.’
If you haven’t read his book on classroom observation, I would highly recommend it. It is a really stimulating and comprehensive study of the context in our sector and challenges current models in thought-provoking ways. Further details here:
4. Tackle the issue of time head on and suggest ways around it:
- Discuss the benefits of the process so teachers see the value and want to fit it into their schedules
- Emphasize that the idea of a peer visit is to see a short session, maybe only 20 minutes, so it is actually doable for most people if they feel motivated
- Show real commitment to the process by covering the class to enable the peer visit, if you are the manager
- The manager or course leader can also start this off as a learning walk model, in which they walk with a teacher and drop into a few lessons to discuss what they see. This works well in teams who are more used to people appearing in their classroom!
- Teachers cover for each other – cover swap
- A lump of staff development budget is allocated to paying for cover if required
- Video cameras can enable teachers to video themselves and share the clip with a peer, then discuss it by phone or Skype, if face-to-face meeting is difficult. The ability to keep the clip confidential is important here
I hope some of these points are helpful in your discussions around peer visits and I would love to hear from people who have these up and running in their setting.
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